The Arab-Israelis and their potential role as the conflict’s true mediator

During Operation Protective Edge, we saw heightened displays of nationalism by Israeli Arabs through protests in an effort to show their support for their people.

Joint List MK Ayman Odeh (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Joint List MK Ayman Odeh
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Since April of 2014, we have seen the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continue to deteriorate on the ground as well as at the political level.
Beginning with the infamous kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the unification between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, a major military operation followed, Operation Protective Edge, resulting in hundreds rockets raining on Israeli cities and further deterioration of an already depressing situation in Gaza.
Also during Operation Protective Edge, we saw heightened displays of nationalism by Israeli Arabs through protests in an effort to show their support for their people. According to Haaretz, some 1,500 Arab Israelis were arrested for demonstrating against Israel’s policy during the war. All of this occurred during failed peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, facilitated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Then during the Israeli elections in Spring 2015, we saw another victory for Netanyahu’s rightwing government, and the newly reelected prime minister made a statement on how low a priority a two-state solution is. In fact, in the days leading up to the election, Netanyahu even said that under his administration “there will never be a two-state solution,” a statement which he later backtracked from after he won.
Many predict that we will continue to see a right-wing agenda tarnishing any future chance for a two-state solution. As Dr. Saeb Erekat, the PA’s chief negotiator stated, Netanyahu’s government “will accelerate and intensify its actions against the Palestinian people.”
In an effort to oppose Israel in what they claim to be a refusal to commit to a two-state solution, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold Israel accountable for the continuation of settlement construction and aggression against the Gaza Strip. Both courses of action, whether justified or not, are expected to further alienate the other side and continue to set back peace negotiations.
However, despite the deteriorations listed above, there is one development over the past year within the Arab Israeli community which could provide an opportunity to get the peace process back on track.
With the increased outspoken nationalism by the Palestinian people as well as record-breaking turnout in Israeli elections, there is a parallel we have never before. On the one hand, you see increased nationalist support by Israeli Arabs for the Palestinian people, yet you also see unprecedented participation in Israeli elections, demonstrating an acknowledgment or acceptance of the Israeli establishment, something that historically has been rejected by the community.
One would expect only one or the other to occur. Individually, each case would most likely strengthen the Arab Israeli community to one side. This developing parallel could possibly act as the much needed bridge between Israel and the Palestinians to redirect the peace process.
Historically, Arab Israelis have been conflicted in where they stand in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have struggled to be considered part of Israel because they are not Jewish but they receive the benefits of living in Israel, and yet at the same time they are called traitors by their own people for not joining them in the struggle against the Zionist state. This double-edged sword has been implemented to alienate them from both sides of the conflict. But over the past year, through several issues, their status has risen with both sides. Two issues in particular are their stance on the Operation Protective Edge and their participation during the last Israeli elections. Regarding Arab-Israeli public opinion on Operation Protective Edge, many, even those who aim to integrate into Israeli society, opposed the operation in Gaza, primarily because of the consequences to the Palestinians there. In a poll taken by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in August 2014, 62 percent of Israel’s Arabs opposed the war, whereas 24% claimed to be in favor of it.
However, despite such division between Israel and its Arab community during the summer of 2014, we also saw record-breaking turnout of Israeli Arab voters during the 2015 Israeli elections. After the government raised the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% during the 19th Knesset’s term, the Arab parties banded together comprising of the United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad, the Islamic Movement and the Jewish-Arab party Hadash, the Israeli Arab community who make up 20% of Israel’s population, formed a new Joint List with MK Ayman Odeh as head of the party. According to Odeh, the Joint List “was formed in reaction to an attempt by the right-wing [forces] to transfer the Arab population outside of the political game.”
This was a first-of-its kind collaboration and effectively ended two decades of election boycotts by the Arab Israeli community. In the previous election of 2013, voter turnout among Arabs was just 56% – three percentage points higher than the previous election in 2009, but still lower than the 67.7% turnout among all Israeli voters that same year.
In the 19th Knesset, these parties had 11 seats all together. Arab voting turnout was at 63.5% in the election compared to 56% in 2013. In 2013, the Arab parties together received 349,000 votes compared to 444,000 in this election, increasing by 27.3%. Prior to the election, a survey by Statnet predicted 430,000 Arab votes and 12,000 Jewish votes for the Arab parties. According to The Jerusalem Post, aside from the new Joint List, Arab voters supported in the following order: “the Zionist Union with 22.8% (25,806 votes), the Likud 15.3% (17,394), Yisrael Beytenu 13.7% (15,538), Kulanu 11.8% (13,432), Meretz 11.2% (12,752), Shas 8.8% (10,016) and Yesh Atid 4.1% (4,662).”
IN ADDITION to the war in Gaza during 2014, the Arab parties have taken stances on other issues in support of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well. With regard to a bill seeking labeling of products from the settlements, Hadash, part of the Joint List, said in statement that boycott is a justifiable form of protest over the plight of the Palestinian people.
However, with Arab representation rising in the Knesset, concerns with further integration emerge. When asked about working with Israeli political groups in spite of a potential repeat of being prohibited from joining the ruling coalition after supporting it, Odeh responded emphasizing the Joint List’s aim to strengthen their “partnership with the democratic Jewish camp, to the extent that there is a true democratic camp.” Odeh went on to say that “the coming year or two will be the years for strengthening the relationship between the Arab and Jewish democratic camps.”
Traditionally, the United States has acted as the dominant mediator during peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. A third-party mediator does not necessarily need to have strict neutrality but is often most successful when it has a particular stake in resolving the conflict, and the United States certainly has an interest in this conflict. However, the US has struggled to find a position that relates to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. With Palestinians having to rely on what they have considered to be an indifferent or ineffective Obama administration pushing the stalled Middle East peace negotiations forward, an alternate (and more in-tune) third party mediator may be better suited.
In many peace agreements, a personal interest in successfully reaching a resolution has provided a level of credibility among the parties involved which allows them to trust the third party’s commitment to the process. The Arab Israeli community has as much of a stake in resolving this conflict as anyone. After all, this is still their home at the end of the day. There are several areas in negotiations in which the Arab Israelis could facilitate more effectively than the United States or another international actor could.
One such example would be during trust-building measures. During the Camp David summit for example, one of the greatest obstacles which eventually catered to its failure was the fact that neither of the delegations (Israeli or Palestinian) trusted each other.
Even the US delegation was inept to properly build the trust between them. Representatives from the Arab Israeli community, however, could have possibly acted as such a bridge because of experience cooperating with both sides.
Future opportunities for Arab-Israelis to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians would be during municipality logistics where they could help build relations between the IDF or more importantly, could mediate or negotiate for the next cease-fire agreement with Gaza. Bartering a deal for a cease-fire could earn the Joint List the greatest amount of political points from both sides. Essentially, they would be responsible for keeping both Israelis and Palestinians safe. Taking a role during Operation Protective Edge could have been the stabilizing force to preserve the ongoing peace talks that allowed all players involved, particularly Israel and the PA, to keep their credibility.
The Joint List (had it already been formed) could have taken a nuanced path in being the ear to both sides, allowing neither side to appear weak by compromising.
On a smaller scale, such measures have already been set in motion. Since the elections, President Abbas met with MK Odeh and Israel’s Islamic Movement leader Abdullah Nimar Darwish in Ramallah and informed the two leaders that the Arab League is set to invite all the members of the Joint List to the group’s headquarters in Cairo and to another meeting Doha, Qatar. Odeh has also met with Netanyahu in what the prime minister called an effort “to continue reducing the gaps in Israeli society.” This could be the political niche that the Joint List needs and not only at the national level but the international level as well, assuming it can continue to build trust with both the Israeli majority and the PA simultaneously.